A year ago at this time there was no football. There was no analysis of massive trades, and there was definitely no breakdowns of the most attractive quarterback on a team as a result of those trades.
There was just a lockout, and a figurative chain around the figurative fences lining team facilities. The debate that made the league’s painful hiatus from regular business last five months centered around several major issues, including a rookie salary cap, and money. Lots of money.
But there were also lengthy discussions about player safety, and how the NFL can prolong the careers of its players while also ensuring that their life after football isn’t fatally ruined by brain trauma. While those discussions took place, there were strict rules passed regarding launching at defenseless players, and a change that reduced concussions on kickoffs by 40 percent.
Jump back to the present time, and while the offseason subject matter has changed, the mentality and culture hasn’t. March and April are always busy in the offseason calender, but instead of solely analyzing free agent movement or looking ahead to the draft, we’re talking about the severe penalties necessary to punish a team and its coaches who gave players extra monetary incentive to injure the opposition.
In the wake of the BountyGate scandal, Sean Payton won’t coach the New Orleans Saints again until 2013, and Gregg Williams may never coach again in any capacity. Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season, while Williams, who was the Saints’ defensive coordinator and then moved on to serve in the same capacity in St. Louis, has been suspended indefinitely.
Those two punishments officially begin on April 1, while Saints general manager Mickey Loomis will begin serving his eight-game ban after the final preseason game, and he was also fined $500,000. Assistant coach Joe Vitt will be out for six games, and the Saints were fined $500,000 as a team, and they lost their second-round picks in 2012 and 2013.
The penalties were harsh, and they’ll be damaging. But they’re not outlandish or overly severe. The length of Payton’s suspension is the only mildly surprising penalty. My initial guess was half a year for the head coach, but he faced the wrath of a league taking every possible measure to shed a barbaric label.
Payton didn’t directly participate in the bounty program organized by Williams, but he was aware of its existence, and chose ignorance over action. Overall that decision will cost him $7.5 million in lost salary. In St. Louis, one of the worst defensive teams in 2011 thought they had found a solution in the form of two bright football minds. First they hired Jeff Fisher to be their new head coach, and then he recruited Williams.
Fisher said he was entirely unaware of Williams’ actions when he was hired, and now a lost team defensively is rudderless again, at least temporarily. The Rams are an innocent bystander in football culture run amok, and it’s likely only a matter of days until Williams is fired.
Those who are defending the Saints will cite the widespread nature of bounties in the NFL to justify Williams’ actions, and bemoan the severe penalties. They’ll say that New Orleans was just the only team caught, and therefore their only crime is unfortunate luck. That’s probably true, but it’s the brazen and boastful nature with which Williams administered the bounties that led to the brute force of Roger Goodell’s hammer hitting its mark earlier this afternoon.
In a decision that can only be described as unchecked idiocy, Williams continued with his program for three years, even though he’s well versed in the league’s annual player movement, and surely knew that an angry free agent who had been jettisoned could quickly become a rat.
He even continued despite the orders of Tom Benson and the Saints ownership. Goodell saw this as a breakdown in respect for his authority and the league’s direction regarding player safety.
From the league’s press release:
“A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious,” Commissioner Goodell continued. “When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and lasting message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game.”
Four specific opposing quarterbacks were targeted (Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Cam Newton, and Aaron Rodgers). Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer noted that in an Oct. 9 game this year New Orleans was flagged for three personal fouls because of hits on Newton.
One was a high-low hit by Sedrick Ellis and Turk McBride that at the time was a questionable call, but it’ll now be viewed with a far more critical eye.
Hindsight will become the greatest enemy here for Saints supporters hoping that their franchise hasn’t been forever tarnished by the arrogance of a former coach. The three-year run for Williams’ bounties covers the 2009 Super Bowl, and 32 wins. Each victory will be looked at with a questioning and lingering gaze that may not fade until the Saints’ next championship.
No, that’s not an overstatement. Within minutes of the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss last month, Twitter was buzzing with references to Spygate, and Bill Belichick’s inability to win a Super Bowl without videotaping the opponent. Spygate happened in 2007, so we’re already halfway to a decade.
Fingers will still be pointed, and blame laid. Warren Sapp, perhaps jokingly, implied that Jeremy Shockey was the snitch. Shockey denied the accusation, and also wondered if conspiracy theorists believe he killed Jimmy Hoffa.
Meanwhile, Drew Brees is speechless, saying that Payton is a “great man, coach, and mentor,” while also demanding an explanation.
You received one, Drew. We all did. It’s 2,203 words long.